Pruning Towards a Stronger Community

I’m a Master Gardener, a community service organization in my community, supported by the Home Extension Service of Oregon State University. We learn evidence based horticultural practices and share those practices and our love of gardening with the community.

One of our community service activities is hosting a community Pruning Day. We offer our pruning to folks who are unable to fully care for their gardens, and help shape up their gardens for spring. This year, I was in one of the twelve teams who visited people throughout the county.

The faces of the our team’s clients, elderly people who welcomed us into their gardens and homes, shined with delight and gratitude. Our team descended upon them, clippers and loppers in garden-gloved hands. We quickly set to work, creating piles of brush and gardens of newly ordered shrubs and trees.

Many hands made light work, and the tasks were quickly accomplished, along with the laughter of many eager hands.

The real gold of the day was hearing our clients tell us their stories, and the story of their garden and orchard, what that place meant to them, and how their work there had shaped their lives. The conversations turned into sermons of stewardship and reflection on well-lived lives. And, tears of gratitude were shed for our presence, and our time and work, our own love for their garden and orchard.

Afterwards, we gathered around the table, sharing their food, and continuing our conversations begun in the garden. There was a fellowship, with our new friends, and with each other. The joys of gardening and service were shared, along with homemade cinnamon rolls and cider pressed from the apples grown on the trees we had pruned.

We made connections, with the earth, with each other, and with lonely people who had their stories to tell.

Community was built on Saturday, one snip of the pruning shears at a time, and a reweaving and strengthening of the community fabric. We are all stronger because of that work, and that time together.

Our county is a better place today because of Pruning Day. Yes, gardens are neater, and orchards are now ready for a productive year of fruit growing. We have cut out the dead wood, brought light into dark places, and invigorated our orchards. Today, we have stronger community relationships with new friends.

—-Neal Lemery 3/7/16

Gathering for Richard Powers

We joined together, this community in grief, each here with their own experiences, our own stories of his life, and how we each had changed and grown, because of him.

Laughter, stories, a few jokes, food, and remembrance, on this bright spring day, his birthday, even. Tears, of grief, and also joy in a good story, as we came together, and remembered all the good he brought to each of us, each in our own way, special, even sacred.

In his leaving, I have been the more diligent in my writing, my musing, my walks into the mists of this corner of the universe, into the deep parts of my soul which need to speak their voice, to be a teller of stories.

“Deeper,” I hear him say still, “go deeper, and bring it out.” Is it his voice, or the voices of angels and muses and the spirits of this place, and this time, or my own soul, who is it I hear?

That question may be important, but the answer is not. Yet, in his passing, that is what the muses are chanting, as I walk in the pre-dawn half light, on the edge of the worlds of my existence, looking for meaning, deep in my wounds of his death.

“Grief is a house
where the chairs
have forgotten how to hold us
the mirrors how to reflect us
the walls how to contain us.

“Grief is a house that disappears
each time someone knocks at the door
or rings the bell
a house that blows into the air
at the slightest gust
that buries itself deep in the ground
while everyone is sleeping.

“Grief is a house where no on can protect you
where the younger sister
will grow older than the older one
where the doors
no longer let you in
or out.”
― Jandy Nelson, The Sky is Everywhere

We gather, in memoriam, and then, when the best of the stories and the funniest of the jokes, and the most bittersweet of songs have been sung, we leave, to go our separate ways, to find that quiet corner and think again of who he was and who he is to us. Yet, in our parting, we are together, each in our own shard of experience of life with him, and his many gifts to each of us.

—Neal Lemery, 4/13/2014

Living In the Midst of Courage

I live in the midst of courageous people. Oh, I laugh at the funny things about my little home town, the log trucks and milk trucks rumbling through downtown, taking up a lane and a half, the cow manure fountains spurting their stink, attracting seagulls and puzzling some of the tourists.

“What’s that green fountain in the field?” they ask, until they get too close.

Our high school teams are the Cheesemakers, and our big tourist attraction is the cheese factory, where people line up for ice cream cones, and carry out big bags of “squeaky cheese”, what my grandmother used to call cheese curds, and fed them to the hogs. At $5 a bag, I bet today she wouldn’t be thinking hog food.

Our biggest celebration is the June Dairy Month Parade, led by our dairy princesses, and finished up with big hay trucks and the town’s biggest fire truck. At the county fair, the most popular events are the “Pig ‘N Ford” races (Model Ts and greased pigs), and the Saturday night demolition derby.

Yet, serious things go on here, people taking on serious, tough issues and moving ahead in their lives.

This week, the local paper features the lives of young women, rebuilding their troubled, addicted lives in a women’s rehabilitation house, finding a healthy routine, and real normalcy. The paper printed their pictures and their names, at the top of the front page, along with their stories of drugs, violence, child neglect, and jail. They are stepping forward, claiming their sobriety and their changes, and proud of their journey.

A mentally troubled lady buttonholes me in the library, venting her political views, and urging me to gather food for the coming apocalypse.. The librarian and I later compare notes, on how we both look after her, in our own ways, knowing that the resources for helping the mentally ill are stretched thin, and the best thing we can do is keep an eye out, and sometimes offer a kind ear for the demons in her head.

I chat with a contractor outside of a cafe. He’s up to speed on how our jails are our mental health clinics, that most folks in jail are addicts, and that this country has the highest per capita rate of prisoners. And, how that doesn’t work. He tells me how he hires guys getting out of jail, knowing that they need the work, and more than a little guidance and fathering from him. He says he’s changed some lives, and that he makes a difference.

“I take a chance on people, but folks need a break, a chance to be successful,” he grins. “Been there, myself, you know.”

A young man here in prison talks to me about his release in a few months, how he’s going to move back to his small town, back to where people know him for his crime and probably aren’t in a forgiving mood. He takes a deep breath and calls his journey “stepping out” into his future. He’s not looking back, and will find new friends, and negotiate a new way of living with his family.

He talks frankly with me about his sexual crime, and how that affected the victim. And, he talks about how he was abused, and beaten and how he was going down the dark road when he was a teen. Prison changed him, he says, and the treatment there was the best thing he’s doing for himself and for his future.

A grocery clerk takes a break outside, looking up at the sky. Her daughter’s back in jail—drugs, again. It’s a tough cycle, and there’s a tear in her eye that slides down her cheek, as she thinks about her daughter, and the granddaughter now back in her care, and what lies ahead. Yet, she’s here, working, and taking it on, again.

Courage. Courage to move ahead, the past be damned.

The local AA groups proudly fix up their meeting house, putting up a sign announcing their presence, and their mission in this town, where the bars nearly outnumber the churches.

“We are here, and we are working our plan, one step at a time.” Not that long ago, there was a whole lot of shame and denial in addiction and recovery, and the biggest voice about it was just a whisper. Now, that work is something people are proud of, even letting the local paper put their names and pictures on the front page, talking about their recovery, and the work they’re doing to stay clean and sober.

We can talk about domestic violence now, too. The local group that offers counseling, shelter, and a lot of support is out in the community, accepted as an important service and a vital presence in our lives.

Not that we are putting an end to domestic violence. It still rears its ugly head in so many ways. But, a lot of discussion goes on about domestic violence now, and we aren’t so afraid to talk about it, and the impact it has on people’s lives, and how complicated it is to help someone who is dealing with it in their lives. There’s some turning points, and people’s thinking is changing. And, people who are dealing with it are being admired, admired for being courageous.

I take an evening class at the community college, During my break, I saw a woman writing on a tablet in the student commons. She writes slowly, thoughtfully, her pen poised above the paper, as she carefully chooses her words. She opens a book, a text on communications, and reads a paragraph, her brow furrowed in concentration, and picks up her pen, and starts to write again. She’s still wearing her uniform from work, and her face tells me it’s been a long day. But she’s here, working away, making progress in her life, getting an education.

My teacher is working hard, too, spending time with each of his students, making sure everyone is challenged, and everyone is learning something useful, something to make them better guitar players, better musicians, and, most of all, better people.

He’s building a house, from the ground up, learning as he goes. Today, he put in a window, something he’s never done before. Not that that would stop him. He loves a challenge, he loves building his future, one board, one sheet of plywood, one window at a time.

At night, the college parking lot is full. Every classroom is busy, people listening, talking, working hard on learning, on moving ahead in their lives.

People moving ahead, working on what needs to be taken care of, people living their courage.

Neal Lemery 10/30/2013

Lost and Found

I can be so lost and alone, in a crowd of people.

I plug into my electronic devices, suddenly accessing the immediacy of “news”, social commentary, so many thoughts of others. Yet, I can be, at the same time, in a dark cave of despair, my isolation and sense of unworthiness becoming the ghosts in the dark.

Friends are searching for their own meaning in life, their purpose, their place in this hectic, yes frantic world of immediate deadlines and obligations.

We heed the call of the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, “hurry, hurry.”

But, we can be lost, easily pushed to the side of the freeway, as the world goes rushing on by.

What we have sensed that we have lost is being connected with each other. We used to tell stories around the fire at night, and during the day, work together, laughing and singing, always connected. We shared the good and the bad.

We were close to the land, and the stars, the birds, and, through our hands, we were connected to the earth. Our work was something we could see, touch, hold onto.

How we lived our day impacted our village. If we didn’t hunt, or plant, or work together, we did not eat. We truly connected with each other, and with the universe. Spirituality was not abstract, it was real. And, we had accountability around the fire at night, and around the shared meal.

Social media is popular, as we are back around the fire, telling stories, catching up, sharing our lives. It has its drawbacks, and we can easily be alone in a crowd, ignoring the person next to us. But, social media life is a form of village life, of community.

Today, friends write about the power of Alcoholics Anonymous, the Friends of Bill W. Why does that message, that simple act of gathering together and sharing, why does that work for so many people? Why does that change lives?

AA works because it is communal, it brings spirituality to the forefront of our lives, it has a belief that our spirituality and our uniqueness as a person is truly valuable, and we benefit from the spiritual energy of others.

All religions, all prophets have the core message: be connected, love one another, find peace and meaning in being in communion with each other and with the universe. Avoid separateness, don’t be alone. We are all one brotherhood and sisterhood. The person next to us matters to us, simple because they are our brother, our sister.

Yesterday, I reconnected. The sun was out, it was a perfect day, almost hot, and still, with the colors of Autumn around me. I had plants to plant in my yard, and it felt good to my soul to push a shovel into the rich, dark soil, and make a new home for shrubs, trees, and daffodils.

In sixty or seventy years, the trees I planted will reach their prime, and will send their seeds throughout the valley, and stand tall and proud, objects of beauty for those who come after me. I will be long gone, but what my feet, back and hands did for those trees yesterday will be remembered by the trees, on the day they moved here and took up residence.

It felt good to feel the dirt under my feet, and between my fingers. I held the plants, and their roots, tenderly settling them into the ground, settling the dirt next to their roots, and watering them in. One tree needed staking, to hold it up in the coming winter storms. Yet, all too soon, it will be growing tall and sturdy, its roots firmly reaching downward, connecting with and becoming part of this land.

Being the tree planter connected me with the earth, and with the universe. I am part of this place, as is the tree, and the hawk that circled above me, and the wind that blew in off the ocean, bringing the smell of last night’s rain.

Today, I am far away, meeting one of my buddies, making more connections with him, as he is planting his own trees, and setting down his own roots. He, too, will grow straight and tall, his soul firmly planted in good soil, taking in the water and sunlight of knowledge and stability, making his life rich and productive.

I’ve been teaching him about tree planting, and farming his soul. He’s a good student, and what I’ve been saying about what we do in the village, how we are part of our tribe, is stuff he’s taken into his heart.

“What are you doing today?” people ask.

Making connections, planting trees, tending my soul, taking care of the brothers and sisters in this world. That’s what I’m doing.


Kana Hanai

In the Hawaiian language, kana hanai is loosely translated as “my adopted child or children, my foster child”. In Hawaiian culture, the word “hanai” (Hah NIE) has a deeper, more complex meaning.

It is the taking in of a youth, who needs some parenting, some nurturance and love that is different than the love and nurturance of biological parents. The hanai child becomes part of the family, not only physically, but emotionally. That child is treated as one of the family’s children, loved and nurtured, and cared for as one of their own. You become an “extra” parent, the additional aunt or uncle. There’s a lot of aloha, of unconditional, unlimited love and concern.

When I was growing up, hanai children could be found occasionally at our dinner table, or spending a month in the summer. My mother spoke lovingly of her aunt, and her ninth year of life, living with her aunt, and seeing the world in a different way, soaking up her aunt and uncle’s love and concern. That year got my mom through some tough times, and gave her new strength, and a new lease on childhood.

In our house, there was always an extra chair, and room at the table for another face, and, if we had dessert, we all shared. None of us kids dared to complain. Having another kid at the table was nothing new, and mom would always be a little happier than usual as she was cooking dinner. Conversation around the table was always lively, and included them, making them feel welcome, a part of family.

My wife and I carried on that tradition after we got married, and took it farther. We lived in town and my stepson’s friends were usually in the yard, or playing music in the house. When it was dinner time, we set the table with another plate or two, and shared our food, and conversation. There was always laughter, and some good stories.

And, sometimes, when we would plan a family outing, a picnic or a hike, that other kid who seemed to be in the house a lot usually came along.

A few years after my stepson went off to college, my wife came home from school one day with a sad story, telling me about one of her students who needed a place to live.

Another son, she said, a hanai child, needing to be coming home.

The spare bedroom became his room, and I found an old dresser for $10, and sanded it down, and put on a couple of coats of paint. Our dinner table was now set for three, and we had teenage music and laughter and mood swings in our house again. We had a front row seat in watching this newest man child grow up and find his passions.

And, soon, his friends would come by, and manage to stay for dinner, and breakfast in the morning. When they were busy having fun downstairs, and watching a movie or playing games, or listening to music, I’d knock on the door with a plate of cookies fresh out of the oven, and a jug of milk.

There were looks of amazement, and big grins as the plate of cookies and the milk quickly disappeared.

We’d take some of those kids to the beach, along with our dog, and pack extra food in the picnic basket.

One summer, one of the boys had pretty much moved in, and I was wondering if I needed to remodel the storage room into a place for him to sleep. One afternoon, his mother called. The guy had been sleeping on our couch, and the end of the kitchen table was his regular place at dinner.

“Is Joe there?” she asked.

Indeed, he is. And it took you over a week to realize you hadn’t heard from him?

Oh, mom, you’ve missed a week of his laughter, of his giggling when he plays fetch with the dog down on the beach, a week of his jokes at the dinner table.

No wonder he’s about moved in here. We’ve been keeping track of him, making sure he has a few meals every day, and a place to sleep. His laundry gets washed and he’s taken on a chore or two to do around here. It’s all part of being in the spirit of hanai.

One time, we took one of the boys to the big city with us, on our annual August back to school shopping trip. I’d had to make a quick trip down the road about forty miles one night, to help him get his back to school money from his dad, before his dad headed off to the tavern with that cash in his wallet.

There was real fear in the eyes of this hanai child, fear that the money would be drunk up before we got there that night. On the way back home, he fell asleep in the back seat of the car, worn out from a day of worrying.

When we hit the big stores in the city, my newest hanai child grinned as he was buying his school supplies, and cried a bit, when I had him pick out a new school back pack, and put it in my cart.

“For you,” I said. “You need a new one for school, you know.”

He looked away, leaning on the shoulder of our foster son, tears welling up in his eyes.

Kids grow up and they move away. And, I never feel really bad when I wave at them as they head off. It is time for them to go, their wings are strong and they are ready to fly. We’ve done a good job, being good parents to each one of the kana hanai who have come into our lives.

We still have our kana hanai. Most of the newer guys live not too far away, living behind prison bars. They stumbled and fell when they were kids, and are working on reinventing themselves, learning to become adults. There are a lot of reasons for that, but they’re still just kids, young men wanting to test their wings, wanting to be part of normal. We go see them often, and celebrate their birthdays, and listen to their stories, and ask how they are doing in school, how they are making their way through their lives.

We pay attention to them, we care about them, and we listen to them. We show up, and we come to visit when we say we are coming. And, a lot of that is foreign to them, and they don’t know quite what to make of it. Just like a lot of the other hanai kids I’ve had in my life, kids just wanting to be normal.

When they get out of prison, they come to our house and eat dinner with us, and play games and go to the beach. Just like all the other hanai children in our lives, we put their pictures on the fireplace mantel, and talk about them with our friends.

We go visit them and spoil them a bit, as they share their challenges and their successes with us.

A few years ago, we spent some time in Hawaii, talking with families and some parents of kana hanai. We shared our stories, and our love for our adopted ones, lost kids we opened the door to, and invited in for some family time, providing a refuge from the world, and a place to laugh and be themselves.

In Hawaii, those who have hanai children have a special place in the community. They have a special place in the village, a place of honor and respect. They are seen as the special glue that keeps their culture healthy and their children strong. Kana hanai families are a big part of the fabric of the community, and a savior of youth who could become lost, and even thrown away.

My village isn’t in Hawaii, but we have a lot of kana hanai, and a lot of parents of their beloved hanai. And, together, we are raising a stronger village, rich in kids, and rich in the spirit of aloha and kana hanai.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Peace Making

Peace Making

It is a lofty goal. Religions preach it. Politicians speechify it. Song writers laud it. We all like to say we are peaceful, loving people.

And, it’s really the other guy who can’t get along, who pushes us into the argument, the fight, the war.

“They started it,” we say, justifying our own escalation of the argument, as we stiffen our backs, and pick up the nastier word, the bigger stick.

Our wars are longer now. This country’s ten year war in Afghanistan barely makes the main section of the daily newspaper, and rarely hits the front page. Our “victory” in Iraq really isn’t seen as a victory of democracy over tyranny, but rather a bad nightmare we should really rather forget.

The latest Israeli-Palestinian rocket war is seen as inevitable and unsolvable. And, folks quickly blame one side or the other for the terror and destruction, the deaths of families, and the unbending, inflexible positions of the major players.

Not many people see the irony in both sides justifying their geographical arguments on scriptures and theologies that also preach unconditional love and peacefulness being the true direction to humanity from an all loving God.

And, at home, war is being waged. We have the highest rate of jailing our fellow citizens of any country in the world. And, we criminalize and jail drug addicts. Our economy continues to impoverish millions of families. Our politics of late turn into high paid deceptive and vicious advertising and name calling, rather than looking towards solutions to difficult problems, and an expression of compassion and helping others achieve the American Dream.

Aside from all the noise, a quiet revolution is going on. Without fanfare, without a lot of chest thumping and back slapping, change is afoot.

Volunteers, neighbors, students, good people from all walks of life are making a difference. Soup kitchens and warming centers are springing up in the basements of churches. Food banks, community gardens, and community centers enjoy quiet and energetic support. Twelve step programs are strong and are attracting healthy members. Prison outreach programs, local music jams, potlucks, and community thrift stores are thriving.

We baby boomers are retiring now, in record numbers, and we are volunteering, helping out, talking with people. We are engaged in our communities, our neighborhoods, and in our homes. People are tending their gardens, taking up crafts, and working with others. We teach each other new skills, and we are reaching out to others, on every level.
The grass roots in this country are healthy and strong. Social media has expanded the front porch and the neighborhood coffee shop into a bigger, national neighborhood of old friends, old classmates, and long lost relatives. New connections are made, and our common humanity, our common passion for connecting with others, for caring for each other, are re-weaving the social fabric.

As a country, and as a community, we are re-creating our social conversations, and deciding what topics we will take on. Newspapers and the major television networks, and other corporate media are finding their audiences shrinking. New books are now self-published, and marketed by word of mouth and on Facebook and blogs. We are taking charge of what we talk about and what we learn.

The richness of our own wisdom, our heritage, our values, and our work is now easily shared, and easily explored. What I think and what I want to say to others now can be quickly “aired” to not just my household, not just to my buddies at the coffee shop, but to the world. With a few keystrokes, my morning rant about one thing or another can be put out to all my friends, and, literally, to the world.

Someone thousands of miles away can read what I think, and can find my thoughts, on their computer and their cell phone. “Google it” is the motto of this decade, and the back fence conversations start up with a smart phone text or a reply to a Facebook posting. We’ve become master weavers of the social fabric.

We’ve rediscovered the value of those rich one on one conversations, the power of reaching out and simply saying, “I care about you.” Yes, we do that electronically, but we also do that face to face, neighbor to neighbor. This is our reality; we are rejecting the mass media view of the world, and being told what to think and what is truly important.

This morning, the cashier at Denny’s and I had a rich conversation about the real meaning of Thanksgiving and thankfulness, and the crass commercialization of Christmas. She’s rejecting that commercial hoopla and instead, she’s gathering and distributing underwear and toys for foster kids. Her mom is mentoring those kids, filling a need in her community, changing lives.

I’m spending time with young men at the youth prison in my town, playing guitar, being friends, hopefully showing them a more fulfilling way to live. Me buying them coffee at the canteen, just being there, and listening, is opening hearts, and changing all of us.

Yes, small steps, but in the right direction. Together, we are an army, working for change.

Perhaps this country’s “Arab Spring” starts with those conversations at Denny’s, or engaging your neighbor in an idea to revitalize your town. It starts with each one of us, one step, and then another.

We’ve rediscovered the power of taking the initiative, of finding our voice in our community. When I post something on Facebook, or write a rant about something on my blog, or “share” a particular article I’ve found on line, I’m really joining my neighbors on the front porch, or at the coffee shop.

I don’t have to depend on the corporate media to set the agenda, or tell me what the real “news” is, or what to believe. I’m my own news editor now, and I produce my own news show. My friends and neighbors do that, too. Our conversations, in person and on line, are abuzz with new ideas, rich discussions, and the rebuilding of our collective social consciousness.

In all that buzz, we are rediscovering the power of that one on one conversation, about caring for each other, and getting involved with each other. That is the practice of love, love of self, love of family, love of our fellow humankind. Isn’t that the true meaning of the holidays, our true spiritual calling?

We are getting off the couch and thinking for ourselves again, and rebuilding our community, making peace.

–Neal Lemery 11/22/2012